Aethelraed's Unhappy Reign

Rebecca Smith, Dickson College 1998

King Aethelraed II was the third last Saxon King of England. It was in the year 978, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us, that King Edward was murdered on March the 18th. So it was that his brother Prince Aethelraed came to the throne, and "was consecrated king on the Sunday a fortnight after Easter at Kingston".[1] We are also informed by the Chronicle that there was great rejoicing amid the counsellors of England when he became king. In the eyes of his contemporaries, his long reign was an unhappy disaster. He came to be known as 'Aethelraed the unraed' ' the badly counselled.'

A page from the C manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
The major events of Aethelraed's reign began in 980, two years into his reign, when the Vikings returned to England after some sixty years of peace. The Vikings began their usual routine of landing at many places along the coast of England where they ravaged, harried, killed, pillaged, took prisoners and simply went and did whatever they pleased. It was not long before they even became so bold as to travel varying distances inland, depending on the availability of horses and accessibility of rivers up which to sail their ships. Such attacks from the invaders were to continue throughout the reign of Aethelraed, who passed away "after a life of much hardship and many difficulties"[2] on April 23rd, 1016, St George's day.

The two main methods by which Aethelraed handled these events are recorded in the Anglo- Saxon Chronicle. One of these methods was to use arms, on sea and land, to try and fight the Vikings. The other was to give tribute(money and provisions) to the Vikings (a form of bribe known as danegeld) and so forming treaties with them in return for the tribute. Unfortunately for Aethelraed, he did not handle these events very well during his reign. He does not have a very good reputation for the way in which he handled the Vikings. The only method that was really effective was the act of giving tribute to the Vikings. Such truces as were made, however, would always be broken not long afterwards. This method is unfortunately the one from which Aethelraed seems to have got his reputation and perhaps also his name. Aethelraed(II) the Unraed, as Churchill informs us[3], literally means Aethelraed the Ill-counselled. This leads us to the conclusion that while Aethelraed did not handle the events well, it was not all due to him alone.

The circumstances that surrounded Aethelraed contributed greatly to the failure of his efforts. The first circumstance to consider is his age. Neither the Chronicle or Churchill's History of the English Speaking People, informs us of Aethelraed's age at his accession to the throne, but World Book Encyclopedia, informs us that he was ten. None of the sources inform us of his age at death, so if the World Book's claim is true, then he would have died at forty-eight, quite a possible age for his death. If Aethelraed was in fact only ten when he became king, then it is quite possible this is why he did not handle the events very well. At such a young age, he would have required help in handling the events. This leads us to a conclusion about why he was given the name 'Ill-counselled' - he needed to rely on the advice of his counsellors. So it seems that if he was only twelve when the Viking raids started then he would have needed advice, which may well have been poor advice. If he was wrongly advised as a youth, it is quite possible that this is why Aethelraed continued using those methods that he learned throughout his reign.

Other external circumstances that affected how well Aethelraed handled the events was that he was often betrayed by some of his most trusted men. The Chronicle records a number of incidents when Aethelraed tried to gather armies and navies with which to attack the Vikings. Several of these efforts were unsuccessful due to Aethelraed being betrayed by those he trusted the most, his earls and lords. It also seems that some of Aethelraed's efforts were unsuccessful because of the occurrence of events out of his control, such as storms that destroyed ships.

Aethelraed had poor policies at times, policies that affected how well he handled the events of his reign. For example, when it came to the treaties formed after giving tribute, the Vikings continued to break these treaties throughout Aethelraed's reign. Aethelraed broke a treaty himself on one occasion, in 1002. Aethelraed killed all the Danes in his country because he believed they were plotting against his life. Many Danes would have been in the country, descendants of those who had lived in the Danelaw some years before. Killing these Danes only incited revenge from the Danish Vikings, as shown by the
A History of the English Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill
many and serious attacks recorded in the Chronicle after he broke the treaty. Another mistake was to give tribute to the Vikings. Although it may have seemed successful initially, in the end it was only to cause more problems. By the end of his reign, Aethelraed was being forced to give tribute to the Vikings along with the people as it was demanded, instead of giving it on his own decisions.

In Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples, he states that King Alfred the Great never hesitated to use both money and arms, but that King Aethelraed used money instead of arms. Although this is not always the case, it seems to be his method for deterring the Vikings the majority of the time. When using arms he may have been successful if he had not been betrayed so often. When using money however, as Churchill says, "He used it in ever increasing quantities, with ever-diminishing returns." <ref>Churchill, 1965, Vol.1, pg.105<ref>Sadly this statement is true. Although Aethelraed may have given England his best effort, it was not enough. External circumstances affected how well Aethelraed's methods of deterring Vikings worked. He was unsuccessful in handling the Vikings during his lifetime, making several serious mistakes, and ended up being outrageously blackmailed in return for his honest attempts at peace.


Churchill, Winston, 1965, A History of the English Speaking Peoples, Vol.1, Cassell, London.
Garmonsway, G.N(translator & ed.), 1965, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, J.M. Dent and Sons, London.
World Book Encyclopedia, 1992, Vol.20, pgs.162 & 426.


  1. ^ ASC, 978
  2. ^ ASC 1016
  3. ^ Churchill, 1965, Vol.1, pg104